Giving Rehan Ahmed his Test debut this weekend and making him the youngest of England’s 710 Test cricketers is a remarkable call to make about a player with just three top class matches to his name . But it comes as no complete surprise to those who have followed Ahmed’s journey over the past decade.
Indeed, when Shane Warne, the greatest leg player of them all, met 13-year-old Ahmed, he predicted he would be playing first-class cricket at 15. That debut was this summer at 17, so maybe Warne would see that late Test Call.
Ahmed will be 18 years and 126 days old on Saturday, 23 days younger than Brian Close when he made his Test debut in 1949. He has long since appeared as a special case. You’re not playing the national team in the nets at 12, like he did at Trent Bridge in 2016 and periodically since, or doing a trial tour at 18, if you’re not marked as a player with international potential.
England and Wales Cricket Board performance director Mo Bobat first met Ahmed when he was 14, as he does for most players on the English course. He is keen to point out that even now Ahmed is not necessarily more talented than excellent England youngsters such as Somerset goalkeeper James Rew or Warwickshire’s Jacob Bethell. What sets Ahmed apart is his rare skill set, as a versatile leg-turning player.
England has a disastrous record when it comes to producing leg-spinners. Four of the five leg specialists who made their debuts this century did not make it past the two selections; no one has 20. Bobat acknowledges England ‘didn’t deal with young spinners so well’ so ‘we’re trying to be a bit more deliberate with what we do for him’.
The other reason the ECB is particularly “deliberate” with developing Ahmed is that he is the dream of the franchise scene, a player who could be bought for decades.
Bobat regularly speaks of providing Ahmed with a “balanced program” that would “deepen his development”, which means providing plenty of red ball cricket as well as white ball, as well as “graduated exposure”. An example of this is assessing his readiness for the test tour during the Lions trip, before making the decision to step in. The fact that he was even considered for a Test cap confirms that he has since impressed Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
The aim has been to ensure the alignment of everyone who has an influence on his fledgling career: England, Leicestershire, his family and any franchises that might sniff (he is encouraged to play franchise cricket as well than for his county). Many meetings have taken place since his breakout performance at the Under-19 World Cup this year.
Ahmed insists that he is not just a kicker, but a batsman who bowls. Until the recent Lions camp in Dubai, Bobat disagreed. Then he saw him play half-bat against players like James Anderson. “He always joked with me about being a hitter who played pitch,” Bobat says. “I agree with him now. It’s not to downplay his leg rotation. It’s just to say he has real talent with the bat.
“One of the drills we ask hitters to do to measure their skill is hitting with a half-bat. The quality of his touch, which is a strong indicator of hand-eye coordination, stood out. He wasn’t just doing it against anybody, he was doing it against Jimmy Anderson.
And his bowling, then? Bobat wants to be cautious. “It’s high quality,” he says. “He’s probably more ready for white ball cricket, because of his age and experience, the natural variation he has. His key area of development now is his leg rotation delivery, I think he trusts his googly more than his leggie, but that’s okay…his googly is extremely strong.
With this required improvement, England ensured that a variety of bowling coaches worked with him, from Jigar Naik to Graeme Swann. Besides his leg, his key area of development is his conditioning, which improved on the Lions tour.
The character of Ahmed comes into play. He is steeped in the game, from his father, and has two very promising brothers, Raheem and Farhan, both of whom he considers better players than him. He first came to Nottinghamshire, before moving to Leicester, and has a smile as wide as the Trent.
“He loves the game, and it’s really contagious,” says Bobat. “At the Lions camp, I got an idea of what he does in the evening. I think he spends most of his time shading his room.
“The day before the Lions game he said he was visualizing the batting against Jimmy and Ollie Robinson to prepare. I love it – he’s a bubbly, energetic cricket badger.
Ahmed has been clear that school, at least the non-cricket element, is not for him, but Bobat is not worried that his focus will become too singular.
“I think it’s good to be a real badger,” he says. “Research tells us that, especially for bowlers, it’s usually the badgers who become the best bowlers. He has to work it out over time. If he’s struggling, does he have a release, a break? I know this summer a lot of things happened quickly which created some challenges I think there were times when he thought he needed a little more than cricket so we will work with him to develop this.
If Ahmed is given a cap on Saturday, Bobat appears relaxed. At the start of the Lions camp, Ahmed was nervous, which manifested in overconfidence and underperformance. As the weeks passed, he settled in and he played better, earning his eventual call-up.
“Ultimately the way we try to play our cricket across the formats, it fits that mold,” says Bobat. “He supports himself, is brave, wants to push the game forward, not too worried about being defensive. It’s all great and that’s what we want to cultivate. You don’t want him to reduce that and go conservative.
History provides no indication of how Ahmed will cope. Close played 22 Tests over 27 years. Recent leggies have fallen by the wayside. This time you can’t accuse England of not doing their due diligence.